President Lincoln presents the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, July 22, 1862. Francis B. Carpenter relates the story.
‘… I did all in my judgment that could be done to restore the Union without interfering with the institution of slavery. We failed, and the blow at slavery was struck.’
The Emancipation Proclamation.
ON the afternoon of Friday, February 5, 1864, I rang the bell of Mr. Lovejoy’s boarding-house, on Fifteenth street, Washington. He was then very ill, though his friends did not apprehend that he was so near the close of his noble and faithful career. It is a sad satisfaction to me now to remember that one of the last acts of this good man’s life was the writing, while sitting up in his bed, of the note introducing me to Mr. Lincoln. My first interview with the President took place the next day, at the customary Saturday afternoon public reception. Never shall I forget the thrill which went through my whole being as I first caught sight of that tall, gaunt form through a distant door, bowed down, it seemed to me, even then, with the weight of the nation he carried upon his heart, as a mother carries her suffering child, and thought of the place he held in the affections of the people, and the prayers ascending constantly, day after day, in his behalf! The crowd was passing through the rooms, and presently it was my turn and name to be announced. Greeting me very pleasantly, he soon afterward made an appointment to see me in his official chamber, directly after the close of the “reception.” The hour named found me at the well-remembered door of the apartment—that door watched daily, with so many conflicting emotions of hope and fear, by the miscellaneous throng gathered there. The President was alone, and already deep in official business, which was always pressing. He received me with the frank kindness and simplicity so characteristic of his nature; and, after reading Mr. Lovejoy’s note, said: “Well, Mr. Carpenter, we will turn you in loose here, and try to give you a good chance to work out your idea.” Then giving me a place close beside his own arm-chair, he entered upon the account which I shall now attempt to write out, as nearly as possible in his own words, of the circumstances attending the adoption of the Emancipation policy. First, however, let me glance very briefly at the condition of the country at this juncture.
The summer of 1862 was the gloomiest period of the war. After the most stupendous preparations known in modern warfare, McClellan, with an army of one hundred and sixty thousand men, had retreated from the Peninsula, after the “seven days’” severe fighting before Richmond, and great depression followed the disappointment of the brilliant hopes of the beginning of the campaign. The “On to Richmond” had been succeeded by “Back to Washington;” and the Rebellion, flushed with success, was more defiant than ever!
Thus far, the war had been prosecuted by the Administration without touching slavery in any manner. The reasons for this are admirably set forth in Mr. Lincoln’s letter to Colonel Hodges.
Going over substantially the same ground on an occasion I well remember, Mr. Lincoln said:—“The paramount idea of the Constitution is the preservation of the Union. It may not be specified in so many words, but of this there can be no question; for without the Union the Constitution would be worthless. The Union made the Constitution, not the Constitution the Union! It seems clear that, if the emergency should arise that slavery, or any other institution, stood in the way of the maintenance of the Union, and the alternative was presented to the Executive, of the destruction of one or the other, he could not hesitate between the two. I can now,” he continued, “most solemnly assert that I did all in my judgment that could be done to restore the Union without interfering with the institution of slavery. We failed, and the blow at slavery was struck!”
I now take up the history of the Proclamation itself, as Mr. Lincoin gave it to me, on the occasion of our first interview, and written down by myself soon afterward:—
“It had got to be,” said he, “midsummer, 1862. Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game! I now determined upon the adoption of the Emancipation policy; and, without consultation with, or the knowledge of the Cabinet, I prepared the original draft of the Proclamation; and, after much anxious thought, called a Cabinet meeting upon the subject. This was the last of July, or the first part of the month of August, 1862.” (The exact date he did not remember.) “This Cabinet meeting took place, I think, upon a Saturday. All were present, excepting Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, who was absent at the opening of the discussion, but came in subsequently. I said to the Cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them; suggestions as to which would be in order, after they had heard it read. Mr. Lovejoy,” said he, “was in error when he informed you that it excited no comment, excepting on the part of Secretary Seward. Various suggestions were offered. Secretary Chase wished the language stronger in reference to the arming of the blacks. Mr. Blair, after he came in, deprecated the policy, on the ground that it would cost the Administration the fall elections. Nothing, however, was offered that I had not already fully anticipated and settled in my own mind, until Secretary Seward spoke. Said he:—‘Mr. President, I approve of the Proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture. The depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great, that I fear the effect of so important a step, It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted Government—a cry for help; the Government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the Government.’ His idea,” said the President, “was, that it would be considered our last shriek on the retreat.” (This was his precise expression.) “‘Now,’ continued Mr. Seward, ‘while I approve the measure, I suggest, sir, that you postpone its issue until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it, as would be the case now, upon the greatest disasters of the war!’” Said Mr. Lincoln:—“The wisdom of the view of the Secretary of State struck me with very great force. It was an aspect of the case that, in all my thought upon the subject, I had entirely overlooked. The result was, that I put the draft of the Proclamation aside, as you do your sketch for a picture, waiting for a victory. From time to time I added or changed a line, touching it up here and there, waiting the progress of events. Well, the next news we had was of Pope’s disaster, at Bull Run. Things looked darker than ever. Finally, came the week of the battle of Antietam. I determined to wait no longer. The news came, I think, on Wednesday, that the advantage was on our side. I was then staying at the ‘Soldiers’ Home’” (three miles out of Washington). “Here I finished writing the second draft of the preliminary Proclamation; came up on Saturday, called the Cabinet together to hear it, and it was published the following Monday.
“It was a somewhat remarkable fact,” he continued, “that there were just one hundred days between the dates of the two proclamations, issued upon the 22d of September and the 1st of January. I had not made the calculation at the time.”
—Francis Bicknell Carpenter, The Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln (1865).